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A PR pro, an HR leader and a counsellor discuss AirAsia's F-bomb leadership saga

A PR pro, an HR leader and a counsellor discuss AirAsia's F-bomb leadership saga

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AirAsia was thrust in the spotlight last week when a video of its Thailand CEO Tassapon Bijleveld making insulting remarks to a female employee circulated online. Bijleveld was criticised on social media for using the F-word on the employee and telling her to "shut up", as seen in the video. While CEO Tony Fernandes, president of airasia Digital Aireen Omar and head of eCommerce Lim Ben-Jie were present during the exchange, they remained silent in the video. Several industry professionals have also expressed their disapproval on LinkedIn concerning this recent incident. 

AirAsia previously told A+M that it has zero-tolerance policy towards inappropriate behaviour and that it has apologised to anyone affected as well as dealt with it immediately. Fernandes also apologised later on, adding that this is "not the culture [it wants] at AirAsia", media reports said. Shortly after, he said the video of Bijleveld telling the female employee to "shut up" was "deliberately edited to smear [the airline's] reputation", other media reports said. He explained that he had also received similar treatment from Bijleveld during the call which was not shown during the video. Hence, this created the impression that Bijleveld only made insulting remarks to women, media outlets reported quoting Fernandes. Fernandes also told Malay Mail that he did later ask Bijleveld to be removed from the call - which wasn't shown on the video.

Today a company's leader is the face of its culture, ethics and image. In Malaysia, the Edelman's Trust Barometer study done earlier this year found that individuals are now placing more trust in leaders who are "local" and familiar to them such as their own CEOs (68%), and individuals in their own communities (68%). Fernandes is well-known in both these aspects as is Bijleveld within the Thai market.

Hence, it is safe to say that employees look to them for guidance and to cultivate a safe and inclusive culture, said industry players A+M spoke to. In such an instance, both the PR and HR teams are involved, with PR managing external and employee communications, while HR takes the reigns on leadership training and staff communications. 

Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, PROTON's director, group corporate communications role, said in most companies, PR and HR have an "umbilical cord" type of relationship. "Internal communications and HR are basically brothers from a different mother," he said, adding that when it comes to internal communications, one does not know where HR starts and PR ends, and vice versa. If companies were to put emphasis on ensuring their customers and external stakeholders are satisfied, they should also do so internally because employees are first and foremost the critical stakeholders within a company. At PROTON, for example, Tharumartnam said both PR and HR teams go beyond how issues are communicated to the employees to offering strategic input on whether the right decision is being made. 

That said, it also boils down to context. To overcome this, what the PR team could do was to provide some context but not overexplain the situation because "you cannot win that war", Tharumartnam said. From a layman's point of view, he said the recent incident is binary with many believing what they have seen circulating - edited or not. They then form their own impression of what Bijleveld did, and what Fernandes' stance should have been.

"When you are a powerful brand like AirAsia or someone with a strong character like Fernandes, you will always polarise. What do you do about that?" he said. On an industry-wide level, AirAsia has also cemented its reputation as a brand that celebrates its employees, especially with AirAsia Allstars. The AirAsia Allstars page lists "people first" as one of the values it celebrates, believing in diversity and treating others with respect. Fernandes is also quoted on the website saying: "It has always been about the people." Hence the move, said PROTON's Tharumartnam, is considered a comeuppance or even schadenfreude for many, adding:

Just go mea culpa but it has to be really sincere. Don't overdo it because then it starts to become disingenuous. I wouldn't try to seek pity from it and there is definitely no justification from this. You can't win. 

One thing the PR team should also consider is how much has this really impacted the brand. "It could be a sign that AirAsia needs to look at how their employees behave internally or it could just be a case of one bad apple," Tharumartnam said. What Tharumartnam advises that the team should do is to set clear rules about the way employees speak internally and also decrease the rhetoric of how wonderful AirAsia as an organisation is. "Let's say this happened at a construction company, for example, nobody will say anything because the boss never spoke publicly about how much the employees are loved and cared for," he added. That said, while Tharumartnam does not condone such behaviour from leadership, he said the backlash is also a reflection of the times where everything seems to garner a fight or flight response. 

He added that while staff should speak out, generally when the bosses don't say anything, it is hard for a subordinate to bring it up because it shows "a bit of discord". "You don't want for the team to be seen as not being on the same page. The onus is on the most senior person to address the issue and I have done that in internal meetings too," he said.  

The responsibility lies with the leadership

While the PR and HR teams at AirAsia might just now be on overdrive managing the crisis, the responsibility to change such a culture or behaviour does not lie with either team but rather with the leadership, Chen Fong Tuan, country HR and general affairs director, Samsung Electronics told A+M. According to him, leaders lead by what they do and how they do it - not by what they say. "Values of the organisation need to be lived out, and those who do not must be called out regardless of position or status. People need to be given permission to do so without fear or favour," he explained, adding:

Changing culture is a long burn and it must start from the top.

In the case of AirAsia, and solely based on the video circulating online, Chen said this issue could be seen as a systemic issue rather than a PR or HR one. According to him, the culture is embedded such that these types of behaviours are acceptable. "Rudeness disguised as candour. Arrogance disguised as confidence. This is an organisational mindset - deep-seated and entrenched," he added.

When encountering such experiences, employees must not cower, Chen said. He said staff must stand up for their right to be respected just like everyone else, and if the company culture discourages that, then perhaps it is not the right company to work for in the first place. Meanwhile, in a separate LinkedIn post, Chen said if he as a HR lead were to encounter a similar issue at a virtual townhall, he would immediately stop the conversation and request for the C-Suite to apologise to the staff involved. As the steward of the organisation's culture, he would also take responsibility to emphasise that such behaviour is unacceptable is not to be repeated, and would also personally apologise to everyone on the call on behalf of the leadership team. 

"They say culture is what you do when no one is watching. I would add that culture is as much what you do when everyone is watching as well," he added. 

Human reactions to awkward and uncomfortable situations

While Fernandes has since apologised, and called Bijleveld's behaviour "appalling", media reports said Fernandes understood his position of having to manage an airline amidst a pandemic. He added that Bijleveld has been under plenty of pressure and while people respond to pressure differently, Bijleveld's conduct was still "inexcusable".

When the issue first emerged, the reactions of Fernandes, Aireen and Lim during the call were also heavily scrutinised and some called the leaders out for smirking in the background while remaining silent. While netizens and industry professionals are in agreement that the leaders should have spoken up there and then, this also sheds light on the reactions of humans in uncomfortable or awkward situations.

"Laughter is definitely something that we do when we are awkward or uncomfortable because we are releasing the emotions of awkwardness and discomfort that is within us," associate professor Dr. Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan, Taylor's Psychology and director of Taylor's Centre for Human Excellence and Development, told A+M. She explained that laughing creates a moment of catharsis, hence some might laugh in awkward situations to loosen the tension at the moment. She added:

Why would somebody smile when someone else seems to be aggressive or awkward towards them? Besides releasing the nervousness inside them, it is to also placate the other individual or calm the situation down.

Dr. Jegathesan, who is also a licenced counsellor, highlighted the defence mechanisms that humans experience when placed in an uncomfortable position. While the two major ones - fight or flight - are generally well-known, there are also two others - freeze and friend.

For friend, in particular, Dr. Jegathesan said this response requires high levels of cognition. For hostage negotiators, for example, they attempt to be friendly with individuals who are aggressive until they can calm them down. And that is sometimes the best way to get to an emotional, emphatic connection with people who are threatening, she added when explaining the basic human tendencies people have to overcome awkward situations. "Human reactions are very unique to each individual. And we need to respect the fact that how one person may express anger, rage, or grief, and fear is not the same way as others," she explained. 

Related article:
AirAsia apologises after Thai CEO's rude remarks to staff goes viral on social


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